It is a Monday morning, and a group of 15 sixth graders from Hamilton is gathered around a video station watching a boy called Red audition for the TV show “American Idol.” Things aren’t going well for Red as he sings off key. But the judges are having a great time, doubling over with laughter as the faltering boy continues. In another video, the group watches a cartoon that pokes fun at a gay man.
In a room nearby, a group of students is sitting on the floor taking turns reading stories about kids being taunted because of their learning or physical challenges. There is a story about a girl who has trouble reading, a blind boy, a boy in a wheelchair, and other scenarios.
Meanwhile, another group of students is watching video clips of boys and girls telling personal stories. A heavy-set girl talks about being called names, like “hog” and “pig.” Two girls talk about tolerating insults because of their religions. A boy narrates his story about being monitored by a shopkeeper because of his color. Another boy shares his confusion over being excluded from social activities though he doesn’t know why.
The sixth graders participating in these activities are on a field trip at the Kidsbridge Tolerance Museum at the Senior and Community Center in Ewing, where they explore exhibits and interact with other students and the museum’s volunteer docents. The volunteers assume the role of group facilitators while kids learn about bullying prevention.
After the stories are told or the videos shown, docents initiate group conversations and guide students through activities that show them how to stand up to bullying and honor the individuality of themselves and others. The docents work with small groups of students designed for different age groups: four and five year-olds, elementary schoolers; and middle and high schoolers.
The museum reaches out to all the parties involved in bullying situations by focusing on empathy and empowerment, says the museum’s executive director, Lynn Azarchi. Through various exercises, the kid who has been targeted gains self-esteem through self-affirming actions such as speaking up to the bully, writing in a journal, or sharing with a friend. The kid who is a bystander learns about becoming an “upstander” through strategies such as walking the target away from the scene. Both the target and the upstander are encouraged to let an adult know what is happening. The person who is being harmful learns about empathy and why it’s not cool to bully.
After completing a program at Kidsbridge, one student said: “I knew things happened in the world, but this woke me up. Hearing real kids talk about this and not just reading about it really opened my eyes to a whole new world. I was extremely moved by every exhibit I saw today. Decisions will be much easier for me now.”
The mission of Kidsbridge is to create empathetic individuals and caring citizens who live their lives without prejudice or discrimination and who are positive advocates for themselves and others. “An upstander knows the right thing to do and practices it,” says Azarchi. “He feels the other person’s pain and takes action. It’s not enough just to feel sorry for someone.”
Programs are constantly evolving, says Azarchi. They get tips from kids, docents, teachers, and counselors during museum programs. Currently, the museum staff is considering another term for the word “bully” since a person who has bullied in one situation doesn’t necessarily bully in other situations.
The museum is the only youth-oriented tolerance museum of its kind in the United States, says Azarchi, adding that the program serves 2,500 students and 300 educators annually.
Another aspect of the museum field trip involves sharing what the groups have learned after they get back to school. The sixth graders mentioned above came up with ideas for upstander board games they can play with other kids.
Back-to-school projects for middle and high schoolers have included identifying a local or global issue and drafting an action plan that can be spearheaded by a small group but addressed in a larger group or the entire school. Issues might include cyber bullying, diversity appreciation, homelessness, or community service.
While many of the activities at the Kidsbridge museum take the form of games, their impact goes much deeper than having fun or feeling good, Azarchi says. The programs are evidence-based, using assessments that measure empathy and behavior given to participants before and after they take part in a program. The assessment process is directed by the psychology department at the College of New Jersey.
Kidsbridge programs are also informed by studies from outside sources. A report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that bullying can lead to serious health issues, depression, and poor academic performance. Some of these effects may linger into adulthood. According to the department’s website, stopbullying.gov, at least one-quarter or one-third of all U.S. students say they have been victimized, most of them in middle school. Seventy percent say they have witnessed bullying in the classroom, cafeteria, or schoolyard.
A report from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development shows that 11 percent of students report that they are regularly targeted by bullies, 13 percent report that they regularly target others, and six percent report being both targets and bullies, referred to as “bully-victims.” That leaves 70 percent of the population, says Azarchi, who also asks why it is that the majority allows the 20 percent to target themselves or others. “We are in the majority,” she says. “It’s time for us to move from being bystanders to upstanders.”
Azarchi says her desire to work for the cause of anti-bullying is motivated by the fact that she is empathic by nature, “almost to a fault,” she says. She says that although she was teased as “Skinny Lynny” in grade school, she was never the target of serious bullying. What had the most impact on Azarchi was feeling the pain of other kids who were bullied and figuring out how to stand up for them. Through the Kidsbridge Museum, Azarchi continues to stand up and shows bystanders and targets how to become upstanders. Initially the Kidsbridge program was based on character and diversity appreciation but gradually became involved in anti-bullying. “New Jersey has laws against bullying but no funding for enforcement. So how can the laws work?” she asks.
The Kidsbridge programs have an effect that goes beyond a child’s school experience, says Azarchi. Following the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, in a 2010 opinion piece for the Times of Trenton (also posted on the Kidsbridge website), Azarchi wrote: “Until we start educating our youth and college students to stand up and speak out, especially with regard to safety issues, and until we create whistleblowers, upstanders, and interveners, we’ll be faced with yet another generation of adult bystanders . . . Let’s start educating our youth now. Teach them ethics and morals; have them practice analyzing and fixing broken organizational systems so their sensitivities are honed and they are prepared to expose safety issues and fix ‘people systems’ in the future.”
Azarchi has been the executive director of Kidsbridge since 2002. Its first home was in the city of Trenton, but lack of funding caused it to move to the College of New Jersey in 2006. Because of space reasons, the project moved to its current home in Ewing in July. The lion’s share of funding for Kidsbridge programs comes from corporations and foundations, and a small percentage comes from admission fees for field trips. Some funding comes from government programs in both dollars and in-kind donations. For instance, Ewing provides space at the Senior and Community Center, and in exchange Kidsbridge is working with the township on a plan that would offer field trips to about 250 students from the town’s middle schools.
Before joining the organization Azarchi served as the president of Zarkey Consulting in Princeton Junction for two years. In her early career days, she held director and managerial roles at the American Society of Civil Engineers in Reston, Virginia; and the Hayden Planetarium-American Museum of Natural History in New York. Before that, she interned at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts while earning an MBA in marketing from Columbia University Graduate School of Business. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Pennsylvania State University.
When Azarchi was growing up in Trenton, her father worked in real estate and also as an auto mechanic. Her passion for the programs at Kidsbridge is based in part on her parents’ stress on the value of education, and her studies in anthropology where she learned about culture and power structures.
Azarchi was inducted into the New Jersey Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012 and has received the American Conference on Diversity Award, Princeton Chapter, and the Community Partner Award from Isles Youthbuild. Today she lives in West Windsor with her husband. She has two grown children in their early 20s.
In addition to the Kidsbridge Museum field trips, the organization holds a summer arts camp in Ewing and life skills programs in Trenton. Azarchi works with two other staffers: grant writer and Meg Palladino and museum program manager Rebecca Erickson.
“Through the Kidsbridge programs, we are making progress,” Azarchi says. “We’re getting people to be aware and alert that this is a problem. We’re using our programs and research to make safer schools, communities, and individuals.”
Kidsbridge Tolerance Museum, 999 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing. 609-771-0300. For more information or to make a reservation, go to kidsbridgemuseum.org or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since the interactive exhibits would not be possible without the docents, Azarchi encourages anyone interested in volunteering to contact her. Volunteers are also needed for the upcoming Martin Luther King celebration in January and the Walk2Stop Bullying in June.
MLK Day of Service in the Tolerance Museum, Monday, January 19, 1 to 4 p.m. Interactive exhibits honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, children’s’ activities, arts and crafts, and advocacy letter writing. Co-chairing this event is Edith Savage Jennings, a compatriot of Dr. King and known as a social change maker today.